The Search for Autenticidad: Jeanine Cummins’ Controversial Novel American Dirt

When Oprah announced that the new pick for her book club was American Dirt, the third novel by Jeanine Cummins, I doubt she predicted the controversy that would arise. The novel narrates the tale of a Mexican woman, Lydia, who escapes to the U.S. with her child as an undocumented immigrant after her entire family is gunned down at a quinceañera birthday cookout. To many, this would seem like a safe choice – sympathetic protagonist, rags to riches narrative, deals with contemporary issues… However, although the novel was met with adoring praise from literary heavyweights such as Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, many latinx authors and journalists were dismayed at the wholly inaccurate representation of Mexican life. 

Myriam Gurba, a Chicana writer, was among the first to express their outrage at the Americanised view of migrant journeys. In her now viral critique, she pulls apart the gringo stereotypes of Mexico laced throughout the novel, from the Latin lover seemingly ripped straight from a 70s romance flick, to Lydia’s shock at daily Mexican realities despite being Mexican herself. In David Schmidt’s less than positive review, he notes the wealth of inaccuracies, such as the misspelling of Mexican names (for example Lydia’s son is named Luca, the Spanish equivalent of this being Lucas) or the many Mexican characters happily chowing down on BBQ ribs and black liquorice drops – typical American cuisine. 

Writing which claims to speak ‘authentically’ about a particular experience has seen a huge surge in popularity recently, as many readers want to learn about cultures that they have no connection to and to support authors writing from perspectives that are rarely shown in mainstream media. This is seen in the huge success of Nikesh Shukla’s excellent book The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays written by various authors meditating on the immigrant experience of America. However, problems arise when one tries to identify what counts as an ‘authentic’ voice. Are we saying that due to Jeanine Cummins’ white American heritage she cannot write a novel set in Mexico focusing on the Mexican migrant experience? Is all this controversy essentially identity politics? 

I disagree. The problem of American Dirt runs much deeper. Far too often Latin America is presented in Western media as one homogenous nation and culture, a tropical paradise filled with brown-skinned beauties, endlessly flowing tequila and narcotraficantes patrolling the streets. Unfortunately, Cummins perpetuates this damaging view in American Dirt. In interviews she often cites the inspiration for this novel as coming from her Puerto Rican grandmother, but the Puerto Rican immigrant experience and the Mexican immigrant experience are by no means the same. In a similarly uninformed fashion, she opens the novel with a quote from famous Latino author Pablo Neruda. The only problem being is that Neruda is Chilean, his homeland being located more than 4500 miles from Mexico, about the same distance as from London to Anchorage, Alaska. 

More damaging still is that novels like these receive far more attention than those written by latinx authors. Brilliant novels such as Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, an Odyssean tale of a young Mexican woman attempting to bring her brother back from the U.S., and Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, which narrates the narco world from the perspective of a cartel member’s son, received critical acclaim but no way near the same levels of media attention garnered by Cummins. 

This is not to say that authors cannot write about cultural experiences which are different from their own; after all, fiction is meant to transport us to other worlds, to allow both writer and reader to understand the world from different perspectives, but one must first learn to listen to the experiences of those belonging to that culture. Jeanine Cummins absolutely had the right to write about the Mexican migrant experience, however, the simple fact is that without proper research, it just isn’t very good. 

Photo Credit: Latino USA